NORMAN — For almost 40 years, Dr. Larry Burns has done one thing: abortion.
Abortion rights activists might dub him a hero for running one of Oklahoma's three abortion clinics.
Anti-abortion advocates might go so far as to call Burns a murderer.
“I don't expect people to agree with me,” Burns said. “It seems like people don't want to know that you really exist until they need you, and when they need you, they really need you.”
It has been 40 years since the U.S. Supreme Court decided on Roe v. Wade, a landmark decision that ruled no state could outlaw all abortions.
The Rev. Anthony Jordan counts Jan. 22, 1973, as “one of the darkest days in America's history.”
“On that day, the United States Supreme Court determined the death sentence for now more than 50 million unborn children,” said Jordan, executive director-treasurer for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.
Six months after that decision, Burns got a call from a friend. One of the first legal abortion clinics in Oklahoma needed help with anesthesia, and Burns was studying to become an anesthesiologist.
He moved to Tulsa to work at the clinic. This is where Burns learned to perform abortions. He now operates a clinic in Norman.
During medical school, students generally do not learn how to perform abortions. They might learn similar procedures, but not specifically how to perform abortions.
Before Roe v. Wade, there were a limited number of places women could get legal abortions. There were clinics in Kansas, New York and California, but that was about it, Burns said.
It's estimated that the number of illegal abortions in the 1950s and 1960s ranged from 200,000 to 1.2 million per year, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Some ended up with permanent injury.
“A lot of times, you would get blindfolded and taken out to a farmhouse or motel or somewhere,” Burns said. “You've got total strangers working on you. You wouldn't know if they were medically qualified or not; usually they weren't.”
Oklahoma City law professor Carla Spivack said the rarity of abortion clinics before Roe primarily affected poor and working women.
While wealthier women could likely afford to travel for an abortion, others could not, she said.
“It meant women had no control over their reproductive decisions,” Spivack said. “Roe and the pill were sort of really the key events in giving women full citizenship and the ability to participate in society.”
Former House Speaker Kris Steele voted on hundreds of measures during his 12 years at the Capitol.
But a moment about three years ago has stuck with him, especially when discussing the abortion debate.
He and other lawmakers were working late when a bill came up on the House floor about in vitro fertilization.
Under the bill, women who donated eggs for the process could not be compensated.
“Whenever the bill was brought up, several lawmakers said, ‘Oh, this is a pro-life initiative,' and it passed,” Steele said.
“It sailed with hardly any debate or even discussion just because somebody referred to it as pro-life.”
Steele said he voted yes without considering the consequences. He later studied the issue and realized, had he thought about it more, he would not have voted in favor of the bill.
He began to work against the bill, arguing that limiting in vitro fertilization goes against the “pro-life” principles of bringing life into the world.
“It just dawned on me how easy it is to get caught up in the emotion or maybe even the politics of an issue that is so emotionally charged without really thinking it through,” Steele said.
Steele, a Shawnee Republican, has served as a United Methodist pastor until recently when he took a full-time job at The Education and Employment Ministry, a nonprofit that focuses on reducing poverty, homelessness and unemployment in Oklahoma.
Steele is against abortion. At the same time, he says there's a difference between being against abortion and recognizing that Roe v. Wade somewhat dictates what a legislature can do.
“Like it or not, that was a decision that was made, and until it is overturned or changed, that's what we're going to be living with,” Steele said.
Burns stopped going to the Capitol a long time ago. Early on, he tried to talk in legislative hearings on proposed bills regarding abortion.
But he never got called on and not many wanted to hear his viewpoint.
Burns said when he first moved to Oklahoma, the Legislature passed abortion laws regarding safety and sanitation. But over the past 10 to 12 years, the laws being written focus more on ideology.
“I just wish the people that make the laws concerning abortion really knew what they were talking about or really could experience why people come here and the importance of having it remain legal, safe, accessible.”
Burns and his clinic staff perform about 50 abortions per week. He performs abortions only up to 12 weeks. Burns does not defend abortions performed at late-term, unless it's a life-or-death situation for the mother — a very rare event, he said.
“I really think the people who are for choice have wasted a lot of time and effort on defending late-term abortions,” Burns said. “There's no way to put a pretty face on that. If somebody is seven or eight months, unless it's some kind of a really rare medical thing, just go to full term, do adoption. Everybody knows you're pregnant, you're showing.”
Oklahoma law prohibits abortion to be performed after 20 weeks of pregnancy. The second trimester ends at 27 weeks, or 25 weeks after conception, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Burns' clinic offers two types of abortions: a surgical abortion or a medical abortion, which generally involves taking a series of pills.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that about 6,430 abortions were performed in Oklahoma in 2009, the most recent data available.
Of those performed, 4,256 were performed when a woman's pregnancy was at eight weeks or less, according to the CDC. About 1,693 were performed at nine to 13 weeks.
These numbers together represent about 93 percent of the abortions performed in Oklahoma in 2009.
Burns isn't shy about the fact that he has a concealed carry permit. He has had guns for more than 25 years.
“I've got to have guns,” Burns said. “There are too many crazy people out here.”
Over the years, Burns' clinic has been vandalized. In November 1992, several anti-abortion protesters blocked Burns' clinic by locking themselves to gates and entryways.
By June 1993, there were at least eight times when anti-abortion activists went to trial in Norman's municipal court.
One of those cases was an assault and battery case against a man who pushed Burns' wife, Debby Burns, the clinic's office manager, into a car and then pulled her away from the vehicle.
Meanwhile, in 1997, a Tulsa abortion clinic was subject to multiple attacks. The clinic was firebombed with Molotov cocktails, with pipe bombs and with gunshots only weeks apart. A 15-year-old Bixby teenager was arrested for the three events. In 1996, a Planned Parenthood facility in Broken Arrow also was bombed.
Attacks like this began to decrease after President Bill Clinton signed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act into law in 1994, according to the FBI. The law makes it a federal crime to injure, intimidate or interfere with those seeking to obtain or provide reproductive health care services, according to the FBI.
Since 2009 when Dr. George Tiller, who provided late-term abortions, was shot and killed in Wichita, Burns has seen more women from southern Kansas.
Besides Oklahoma, he sees patients from Texas, Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas.
But at some point, Burns will retire. He doesn't know when, but he's 67 and has four grandchildren.
For several years, his clinic has employed not only Burns and his wife but also their daughter. She worked at the clinic until three days before she gave birth. Recently, she gave birth to her fourth child and she probably will focus on raising her kids, rather than coming back to work at the clinic, Burns said.
On a recent Wednesday evening, Burns sat at his desk and was reminded that he and Debby had tickets to see “Jekyll & Hyde” at the Civic Center Music Hall.
His desk is covered with magazines and no computer. Debby handles that for him. His office is decorated with family photos and several buffalo statues and figurines.
“I like buffalo, they're survivors,” Burns said. “So are women.”
Contributing: Carla Hinton, Religion Editor